A summer working at the local convenience store taught Nicole White '19 a number of lessons, good and bad.
At the corner of a dusty county road and a state highway in northern New York, there lies a convenience store. Aptly named the Country Corner Market, it serves the population — between 44 and 200 people, depending who you believe — of my hometown. In October of my junior year at Notre Dame, my parents bought it.
It would have been a compliment to describe the building as dilapidated. North Country winters had scarred its siding, and the glow of the flickering road sign was barely bright enough to attract a June bug, much less a customer. Outdated pumps, the last of their kind in operation, stood in the potholed parking lot, sputtering toward their inevitable death.
Unfinished walls and empty shelves lined the entryway, and a stale corkboard advertised antique furniture and reduced-price hay from a pair of outdated fliers. Dim ceiling lights caused customers to stroke their foreheads, searching for forgotten sunglasses. A blanket of dust collected on neglected products that had long ago switched logos.
The cash register had no computer and couldn’t print customer receipts. Beside it, a stack of home-printed sheets listed the cost of rarely bought items and the names of customers who’d bounced a check sometime this decade.
It was a store I had known my entire life. It was less than two miles from my house. And yet, I had probably entered it a total of 10 times. When my parents expressed an interest, I expressed my doubt.
I had spent the two previous summers exploring Europe. I’d enjoyed my time stealing bits of secret language and swimming in cool Irish seas, but the prospect of spending a final summer back home with friends and family left my wander-wearied mind warm. I envisioned that pre-senior year summer chock-full of forest explorations and mountain climbs, drunken bonfires, and lazy pontoon sunburns on Adirondack lakes.
Instead, I was trained to work at the new family business. I assumed as she initiated me that the manager’s eager disposition was a show for the owner’s daughter, but I soon concluded that, after 16 years on the job, that personality was a genuine requirement.
“Pizzas get one ladle of sauce, two and a half handfuls of cheese, 32 pieces of pepperoni and bake at 400 degrees for seven minutes on the top shelf and seven minutes on the bottom!” she gushed.
Though I never once managed a pizza with those specifications, I quickly adapted to other rhythms of the store. I memorized the cost of well-liked items — Marlboro lights, 12-packs of Bud Light, scratch-off tickets — with and without tax, and learned to customize our inventory to meet our regulars’ needs.
Dave, a Fighting Irish football fan, required daily Dutch Masters and Heinekens at an hour when most patrons were still buying cinnamon rolls. In the lulls between customers, I read the local newspapers we saved for Rebecca, who came each day from work at the college, quarters in hand and chirping about the cost of gas and her slowly approaching days off. Bill laughed at his own jokes and liked the burnt cookies (which were all too easy for me to provide). Sarah collected bottles from the side of the road to trade in, her returnables an odd assortment caked in mud and filled with chewing tobacco. Well into his 70s but still cutting wood for a living, the pine- and aftershave-scented Frank came in weekly for a Win4Life ticket and a pound of freshly sliced bacon, its spinning fat a pain to clean but mesmerizing to watch as it melted off the meat blade.
Kids came in with their grandparents, asking for cheese sticks and peanut butter cookies and handfuls of five-cent candy. Matt, a grown man, came in often for his parents to buy them quartered deli pickles and quarter-pounds of thinly sliced olive or mac-and-cheese loaf. A local state trooper liked the Italian sub special. Mike liked complaining about our prices. Cheese curd was delivered on Wednesdays, and Steve’s was left against the register to soak in its perspiration, squeaking against customers’ teeth whenever someone tried a sample.
It was a small town filled with small talk and routine. I loved my hours with Susan, who came in daily with her winners, perused ticket options that never changed and talked about her grandsons and how her husband always smiled when I drove by. Josh bought vanilla ice cream with his diesel, his work boots and smile making me blush. His dad snuck behind the counter to bully me, making fun of my sandwiches and, in return, I his eating habits. As summer ticked by, the store became my home and these people became my family. Maybe that’s why their words could hurt so much.
2018 was the summer of the #MeToo movement. Each week seemed to bring a more terrible story, and as a culture of sexual harassment was exposed across the country, I wondered: Was I oblivious? I couldn’t relate to these stories, and the tidal wave of allegations unfolding in the news made me wonder why not.
A few weeks into the market job, I learned that one of our customers was known behind the counter as “Pat-Pat” — and his name wasn’t Patrick. In a different summer, I might have described him as a friendly old man. Eyes lined with crows’ feet, Pat-Pat liked receiving hugs from “his girls” with his beer-bottle returns — he couldn’t control what his hands might brush on the way in.
Pat-Pat’s wandering hands were soon joined by a chorus of men speaking words that the raucous stove fan and country radio static couldn’t mask. They came from people I knew and who knew me, from men who knew my grandparents, or whose children I once knew. They emerged from the polished smiles of men in suits and the gap-toothed grins of men with winking eyes.
“What a nice smile. Pretty girl like you must have a boyfriend.”
“It’s been a long time since someone’s looked at me like that, sweetheart. I went to school with your dad.”
“I don’t know what to do about my son. He just got arrested . . . he thinks you’re cute.”
I began to wonder if maybe I was being more than friendly. Did I smile too much? Was my athletic apparel too tight? Should I wear less makeup?
The male employees of the store got comments too, but they were different.
“Most girls are dumb, but not that one. I bet you know what she likes too.”
“You getting that? You should.”
Tips came exclusively from men two or three times my age, who came in alone, when I was working alone. It would be outrageous to think all of them had other motives, but hands that left tips were usually hands that itched to brush skin.
There were moments when I felt like friends had betrayed me. Richard was a regular. He came in for a late lunch on most of my days at the store. We would joke as I took his order of a “roll-less sub” — what most people would call a salad — and he would ask me questions about home or college. His grandkids were in my mother’s class at the elementary school, and he used to work with my dad.
As happened often with friendly customers, one day he put his card in the reader but distracted himself in conversation, losing track of the screen-directed prompts. The card didn’t work and I automatically repeated my default response: “Pull it out and put it back in.” Richard was always a little flirty, but he didn’t even try to contain a smile at my unintended joke. Instead, he took this middle-school humor to its limits, laughing for what felt like an eternity.
“However you like it, hon.”
For the rest of the summer I tried to distance myself from him, acting too busy to talk or pretending to take phone calls when he came in.
Perpetually conscious of the length of my shorts, I spun wafered ice cream cones quickly. On one particular day, I passed my perfection to Sam, happy to hand the 80-year-old alcoholic something that wasn’t beer. The stale hops on his breath blew across my face.
“You can have a lick if you’d like.”
I returned his smile, assuming he was another elderly man unaware of changing social norms, and explained my disdain for chocolate soft serve. His glossy eyes hardened.
“I want to see your tongue,” he said.
I did my best not to shake as I walked away. A poke of my finger would have knocked him over; I wasn’t physically intimidated. But I was unprepared. I imagined a younger, stronger man — the things he must have said, the things he might have done. After that day, when I saw him stumbling through the doorway I would walk away from the counter, disgusted with myself for being so frightened.
The Fourth of July was the hottest day of that summer, and sweat soaked my bandana. Festive and fiery lipstick had melted into the creases around my mouth, reminiscent of the chapped lips of childhood, and from the outset I was in a bad mood. My extended family had taken the boat and jet skis out on the water to picnic at my favorite reservoir, but I was needed at work til midday. Watching as the minutes slowly passed, I heard the squeaking wheels of an oxygen tank on the ground. It was a sound I had come to hate. The tank’s owner was rumored to be on the sex-offender registry, and I tensed as he shuffled toward the counter. He requested his usual chewing tobacco and scratch-off tickets, and I thought he might leave without saying anything.
“I thought you’d be in your bikini and thong today,” he growled between puffs on the tank. “I’ll be back later to take pictures.”
I wanted to kick him out and tell him to never come back. My parents would have supported the ban, I knew, but I couldn’t get myself to say it. Instead I pulled a grimace across my teeth until it became a smile and put on a layer of forced customer-service cheer.
“Have a happy Fourth of July!”
Between the suggestive comments, my days at the store were usually filled with laughter and friendship. I bonded with my coworkers over family drama and the tragedy of our love lives, and covered for them on their smoke breaks.
For most of these women, the convenience store wasn’t a summer job; it was forever. When the comments flew their way, I listened for strategies that I could adapt from their more seasoned replies. But their responses weren’t the witty retorts of a sitcom waitress who’s used to her customers’ crap. Most often, they laughed it off. With a weary acceptance, they tolerated the commentary, only later admitting that some regular was “such a pervert.”
In truth, I did essentially the same thing myself. I really was having a great summer, and I couldn’t bear the thought that my parents might think otherwise because of a few ill-chosen words from the people who flitted in and out. So even as I fumed, I kept the comments hidden.
I hated that I didn’t do more to stop these men, to stand up for myself. Someone needed to hold these men to account, to ask them, “Do your wives know you act like this? Do you treat them the same way?”
I was a confident young woman — one with owner’s-daughter leverage, even, had I wanted to use it — but I couldn’t bring myself to say those words. Being mean wasn’t me, and standing up for myself could come off as rude.
But, in my fear of speaking up, was I disrespecting myself and my friends?
As summer progressed, I found myself running out of the door at closing time, paranoia extending to my fingertips as I searched the parking lot for anything that didn’t belong in the chirping crickets and rural starlight. I’d sprint to my rusty F-150, praying that it would start, praying that no one was waiting for me in its unlocked cab.
I had never felt unsafe in my small town before. Statistically, it’s probably one of the safest places in the world. Yet, like the aroma of kitchen grease that clung to my hair, I couldn’t scrub the words away or stop the fear they caused from seeping deeper into my soul.
My summer at the store was my first minimum-wage job in “the real world.” I put in the time and effort to make my own spending money for senior year. But I didn’t feel empowered. I felt guilty. I left my new girlfriends behind to live with the harassment and leave the market each night feeling like the burnt grease scraped into the grill tray. I escaped a life of buttery innuendos, but they couldn’t.
It’s been a year since then. I now have a bachelor’s degree from one of the best universities in the country. I guiltily imagine that if things go well, I’ll likely never hear comments like those in a work environment again.
I learned a lot at the Country Corner Market — far more than I would have in a relaxing summer reading romance novels by the pool. It was a job that taught me life skills. I learned how to cook and to always set a timer, even when you think you’ll remember the cookies. I learned how to clean and sort money and write checks. I learned to be wary of addictions and preconceived judgments. I learned to smile more and complain less and appreciate the work that goes on behind the scenes at the hands of people who work in gas stations and delis, who cut wood and pave roads.
The job poked holes in my bubble-wrapped world. I became more aware of economic disparities and the levels of treatment attached to salary brackets. Why are bank tellers spoken to differently than store clerks? They both handle money.
I like to think that, when I go back to the store, I’ll be ready to hop behind the counter at lunch rush, confident not just in my abilities as a service worker but in myself as a woman. No one has the right to cause another person fear and pain — not even a well-intentioned, friendly old man. If there’s one lesson I learned last summer that I wish I’d had the chance to implement, it’s that everyone deserves to feel safe. The next time I step behind the counter, I won’t just smile. I’ll speak up.
Nicole White is an intern at this magazine.